By C.J. Hirschfield
“An SRO is a room, and you have to build your whole life in a room.”
At the beginning of the most excellent Home is a Hotel, premiering at the 66th SF International Film Festival April 22, the documentary provides us a quick history of SROs (single room occupancy hotels) in San Francisco, the focus of the film. Created in the early 80s, the idea was to use residential hotels as a stop-gap solution to address the decline in affordable housing—not to respond to homelessness. There are 22,000 people (and their family members, and pets) currently living in SROs in that city.
Director Kevin Duncan Wong first cut the film years ago as a short, which was very well received in 2015. Now expanded to feature length, there is the opportunity to tell the rich and moving stories of wildly diverse residents who want nothing more than dignity, and to have some of the very simple things in life most of us take for granted. Wong’s patience and sensitivity are apparent throughout the film—he is granted access to the most intimate moments and dreams of his subjects, which makes for a gentle but very powerful piece.
There is the promising Black artist whose life is upended when he’s accused of a violent crime. The elderly and visually impaired Latina whose published songs speak of passionate love. The Chinese single mother whose lack of English skills put her at a disadvantage finding work. A Black mom with young children. A recovering addict dad with a young son and dog.
We hear their stories, and about their hopes—all of which include a move to Section 8 housing, which would allow them the space to breathe, and regain self-esteem.
With shared toilets and showers down the hall, cockroaches inside of microwaves and beds serving as dining tables, you might assume that an air of desperation would be rampant among the residents, but Wong allows us to go below the surface. “For us, this isn’t an ordinary building. It houses all of our dreams, all of our ancestors’ dreams, and their ancestors’ dreams,” says one resident. The Tenderloin neighborhood, often seen simply as a den of criminal and drug activity, is actually a vibrant community where there is much connection, as well as humanity.
Wong occasionally utilizes a very effective technique of using recorded voices of residents accompanied by lovely music, by Catherine Joy. Beauty shots of one of the richest cities in the country are used as counterpoint to the lives being lived in the tiny SROs.
One thing that stands out in the film is the energy and resilience of the children whose lives are so confined.
When we see their unbridled joy at finally entering their low-income Section 8 rental housing–where they have their very own room–it’s hard to hold back tears.
The film is not political per se, but when we’re informed how many years it takes to get Section 8 housing because of discrimination against the poor, it’s not hard to connect some dots. And there is a very brief scene at the film’s end of a protest with a sign that reads “Living Wage Now!”
At the film’s end, we see a fantastic piece of art done by one of the SRO residents. It is a large tryptic, featuring three powerful images. They are faith, charity and hope.
To watch four clips from the film go here.
The original 2015 short film that started the filmmaker’s journey to the feature.
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”